It's not how you start, it's how you finish. No team knows that better than the St. Louis Cardinals, who will kick off the National League Championship Series against a familiar foe in the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday.
The Cards found themselves 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta on August 25, but went 23-8 to close the season and secured the wild card when the Philadelphia Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the Braves with a dramatic extra inning win on the final day of the season.
St. Louis then shocked the baseball world by taking out the 102-win Phillies in the National League Division Series with a heart-pounding 1-0 win in Game 5 on Friday, as Chris Carpenter tossed a three-hit shutout to outduel Roy Halladay.
"I understand we had some struggles during parts of the regular season, but you look at this team and, my goodness, we've got as good an everyday lineup as you can run out there," said Lance Berkman. "We've got several starters that are capable of shutting people down, and sort of a revamped and solid bullpen. And we're playing good. That's a good combination."
The Cardinals, who are back in this round for the 10th time in team history and the first time since 2006 when it won the World Series, had trailed 2-1 in the series, but beat Roy Oswalt and Halladay in the final two games.
"Any time you have Roy or any of those guys on the other side, it's like 'Carp' and [Adam] Wainwright for us," said Albert Pujols. "You know those guys are going to keep you in the game. They might have one inning that they have a tough inning, but besides that, they don't make too many mistakes. And, obviously, Carp didn't make too many today."
St. Louis, of course, is led by three-time MVP Pujols (.299, 37 HR, 99 RBI) and the resurgent Berkman (.301, 31 HR, 94 RBI). Pujols was terrific against the Phils, hitting .350, while Berkman homered in the first inning of Game 1 versus Halladay, but did not do much else and had just two hits the rest of the series.
The Cards could get a big boost with the return of outfielder Matt Holliday, whose hand injury left him available to pinch hit for most of the NLDS. Holliday, though, started the last two games and should be ready to go against the Brewers.
Manager Tony La Russa, though, likes to mix and match and got contributions from almost everyone in the series against the Phillies, as unheralded players like Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker and David Freese came through time and time again.
He may not have Schumaker, who suffered an oblique injury in Game 5 and could miss this series.
La Russa hasn't stated who his Game 1 starter will be, but the smart money will be on 25-year-old lefty Jaime Garcia, who pitched brilliantly against the Phillies in the NLDS before surrendering a pinch-hit three-run homer.
Garcia had perhaps his best start of the entire 2011 season against Milwaukee back in May, when he threw nine innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out eight. The Brewers, though, did get him for seven runs (three earned) in a start in August.
"The Phillies are different from the Brewers," Garcia said. "They're two different teams with a different approach, but I have confidence, and I think it's going to be a great challenge and a great series."
Carpenter would then, of course, be in line for a potential Game 7 start.
Like St. Louis, Milwaukee needed all five games to advance past the Arizona Diamondbacks and did so in thrilling fashion on Friday, as Nyjer Morgan hit a game-winning RBI single in the 10th inning to give the Brewers their first postseason series win in 29 years.
"He's gotten so many big hits for us all year," Ryan Braun said of Morgan, who has a few alter egos, including Tony Plush. "He enjoys the moment. It was just an incredible game, an unbelievable feeling to win this thing."
Milwaukee is in a League Championship Series for the first time since 1982 when it beat the Angels in the ALCS before falling to St. Louis in the World Series.
"It's amazing," Braun said. "We've heard all about 1982, so it's nice to start our own legacy. If we hadn't won today, I feel like everything we accomplished all year would have been for nothing. It's a great feeling and it's the first step to getting where we really want to be."
The Brewers' offense is fueled by a pair of NL MVP candidates in Braun and first baseman and pending free agent Prince Fielder.
Braun has become one of the best right-handed sluggers in the game and finished the year second in batting at .332. He also hit 33 home runs with 111 RBI, 109 runs scored and stole 30 bases.
Fielder caught some heat late in the year for alluding to the fact that this is probably his last year with the Brewers, but he produced yet another great season, playing in every game and hitting at least 35 home runs with 120 RBI for a sixth straight season.
The dynamic duo combined to go 9-for-16 with six runs scored, six RBI and two home runs during Games 1 and 2 against Arizona, but were just 5-for-20 with an RBI, three walks and four strikeouts in the three games that followed.
Second baseman Rickie Weeks suffered what could have been a season-ending ankle injury in late July before returning in September. Although he had just one extra-base hit after returning and hit a miserable ,056 against Arizona, he is still a dangerous hitter.
Corey Hart didn't quite match his breakout 2010 campaign, but still swatted 26 home runs. Hart homered and had three RBI in the series win over the D'Backs.
There aren't many teams who can go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee in the starting pitching department, as the Brewers have a terrific top three in right- handers Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
Gallardo led the team in wins (17) and strikeouts (207) while working 207 1/3 innings, and pitched the team's only complete game. He was also a horse down the stretch for the Brewers, as he pitched to a 1.77 ERA and struck out 36 batters over 20 1/3 frames of his final three regular season starts.
He continued that dominance in the NLDS, as he won Game 1 and was terrific in Game 5, while pitching to a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings of work in the series. He won't be able to go until Game 3, though, and will be matched up with Carpenter.
Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke will hand the ball to Greinke in Game 1 against the Cards. He was a perfect 11-0 at home this season, but just 5-6 with a 4.70 ERA away from home. He would also be in line for a Game 5 start in Milwaukee.
Marcum was just the opposite, as he excelled away from home, but had some issues at Miller Park. However, Marcum could be a concern. He struggled in September and absorbed the loss in his NLDS start, surrendering seven runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings at Chase Field.
Should the Brewers use a fourth starter it would be lefty Randy Wolf, who was hammered for seven runs and eight hits in three innings of his start against the Diamondbacks.
Milwaukee has a clear edge in the bullpen department, but closer John Axford's blown save in Game 5 against the Diamondbacks was his first since April. Still, he is one of the best closers in the game and has a terrific cast setting the bridge in righties Francisco Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins and lefty Takashi Saito.
Of course the Cardinals are quite familiar with their NL Central inhabitant Brewers, who won the division by six games. Despite that the two teams split the 18 games played this season, but the Cardinals won six of the final seven matchups and swept the Brewers at Miller Park in late August.
Only twice since the addition of the wild card have two teams from the National League Central met in the NLCS. It last happened in 2005, when the Astros knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
With Philadelphia gone the Brewers, who set a franchise record by going 57-24 at home, will have home field advantage for this series. But it might not matter, as the Cardinals emerged victorious in five of nine matchups in Milwaukee.
Overall, the Brewers outscored the Cardinals, 71-64, while hitting .269 with 17 homers as a team. St. Louis connected for 18 home runs and had a batting average of .239.
This series will be even more intriguing since quite frankly they just don't like one another. La Russa accused the Brewers of stealing signs in early August and even said that the Miller Park L.E.D.-ribbon scoreboard changed brightness depending upon who was at the plate, Then benches cleared a month later when Carpenter and Morgan had words. The outspoken Morgan later referred to Pujols as "Alberta" on Twitter.
"They've been a battle with us no matter if they were in the playoffs, not in the playoffs," said Carpenter. "It's going to be like that this year. It's going to be a good series, I think. We've got some talented players on both sides that are showcase stars, guys that people want to watch play, and it's going to be a lot of fun. I can't wait for it."
Prediction: BREWERS in SEVEN